Last edited: December 08, 2004

The Speaker’s Secret

London Sunday Times, March 18, 2001
PO Box 496, London E1 9XN, United Kingdom
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George Thomas was one of Britain’s best loved and most influential public figures as Speaker of the House of Commons. Yet he lived in constant fear of being unmasked. His old friend Leo Abse, who as a Labour MP reformed the law to legalise homosexual activity, reveals the terror that dogged him even into old age.

One morning at six o’clock the phone rang. My wife, who woke first, picked it up. After a few minutes, looking worried, she handed it to me.

"George here," came a familiar voice. It was my friend George Thomas, secret homosexual and — until barely a year beforehand — superb Speaker of the House of Commons.

His voice sounded strangulated, and George was sobbing. "I’m in terrible, terrible trouble. Come quickly."

I immediately thought he was phoning me from a police station. My heart sank. I feared that, after all the years in which he had given so much to the nation, he was about to be crushed by scandal.

I knew I had to dash to him. For I was well aware that, although he had the wit and aplomb to keep himself cool while damping down the passions stirred in turbulent Commons debates, he would dangerously overreact and panic if there was the slightest sign of a crack in the thin ice upon which he skated all his life.

At the time, George was 75 and one of the best known men in Britain. As Speaker when parliamentary broadcasting was introduced, his voice had been heard daily on the radio calling the house and the country to order.

He had been Speaker for seven years, the culmination of a distinguished political career — an MP since 1945, a minister at the Home Office in the 1960s and subsequently secretary of state for Wales. He was also a prominent lay preacher. He had read the lesson at the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and enjoyed a warm relationship with the Queen Mother.

During his political life, forever emphasising the brotherhood of man, George could benignly sublimate his inclinations. Many, as a consequence, were uplifted by his solicitudes.

But those inclinations could not always be contained under the fraternal rubric. Sometimes, overwhelmed, what he regarded as lapses did occur. Then he suffered his agony.

George was no saint; nor did he claim to be one. But a halo strangely crowned him and enchanted everyone. His very presence illuminated every gathering into which he entered — dining at Sandringham, presiding over Methodist conferences, sitting in the tearoom of the Commons or speaking in the shabby halls where impecunious old-age pensioners assembled. To all alike he brought laughter and hope. His charisma lay in his immediacy. His enemies, of whom there were many, were infuriated that they could fall under his spell.

He never ceased to mock his halo. In the Commons, where so often he precipitated a blunder, the House would gratefully forgive him as, to its delight, he laughed at himself. Members would respond not with censure but with non-malicious glee.

Nowhere did he better illustrate his self-deprecation than in the title he assumed after retirement — Viscount Tonypandy.

A casual observer might think this was homage to his birthplace in Wales. But Welsh initiates like me understood his implicit scoffing at the very viscountcy he was assuming. For ramshackle, down-at-heel Tonypandy was always, in snobbish Cardiff, stigmatised as a despairing hole where troglodytes dwelt. It attracted in Wales the same undeserved opprobrium as Wigan did in England.

The incongruous title was a barbed raillery which George directed against himself — a joke at his own expense. It was his way of coping with his tragic sense of his own unworthiness.

Perhaps I alone knew of his personal travail. I was privileged to give him help when he was endangered as a result of barbarous laws and primitive attitudes.

With no politician in my lifetime did I enjoy a longer friendship. I believe this occurred because of my insistence that — far from corroborating his sense of his own unworthiness — I only acknowledged his dilemma, never his guilt. I lightened his load a little.

Our first encounter was in 1938 when, aged 21, I fought a council seat in the ward where George Thomas was a teacher. As the years rolled on and he became one of Cardiff’s MPs, I was constantly campaigning with him. When I got married it was George who acted as witness in the synagogue, and when I was sworn in as an MP he was my sponsor.

Over the years, given his exposed position, it was inevitable that he would fall victim to blackmail. On one occasion, after a distraught recounting to me of the pressure upon him, I insisted I would meet and deal with the young criminal in his constituency into whose hands he had fallen.

My reputation in Cardiff’s criminal underworld stood me in good stead in dealing with the wretch. As a lawyer, I had often acted in the courts on behalf of the local prosecution department, and, even more frequently, I had defended the city’s gangsters. As one-time chairman of the watch committee, I had the duty of supervising the local police.

The blackmailing cur, therefore, had no doubt that, unless he desisted, I would carry out my threat to ensure he was put behind bars for 10 years; shortly after our encounter he found it was politic to quit the city.

George had always been on the edge of catastrophe. Before my Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which ended the criminality of private homosexual conduct, I had been involved for almost a decade in agitation to reform the law. That had brought me into contact with many homosexuals and lobbies seeking to end the grievous discrimination; and they certainly did not lack a talent to operate a rumour mill.

There were whispers abroad; and I learnt that George was visiting a grubby cinema in Westminster where, under cover of the darkness, groping prevailed unchecked. I warned him against his lack of discretion. Alarmed that I had been able to know about his haunt, he thereafter kept well away from that pathetic Sodom.

But there had been times when my advice had gone unheeded. While still a backbench MP, he asked me for a loan. George never had any money. As MPs we received in those days a pittance, far removed from the undeserved and swollen salaries and puffed-up expenses now bestowed upon themselves by our legislators; but George was always without a penny because what he had, he gave away. He responded to any hard-luck stories and, of course, he was often conned.

The specificity and size of the loan, 800, however, aroused my suspicions. Pressed, he poured out at least part of the story. I urged him to let me deal with this extortioner. But to no avail. That sum — the ticket and resettlement money which was to take the man to Australia — would, George insisted, mark the end of the affair. I had profound misgivings but I could see George was near breaking point. I gave him the money.

I do not know what happened to his tormentor subsequently; but, years later and unprompted by me, George handed me an envelope in the Commons lobby, clasped my hand tightly, said "thank you" and moved away — clearly not wishing to reopen what was to him so painful a wound.

Now receiving a ministerial salary, he thought he was repaying the loan in full. In fact when I opened the envelope I found he had short-changed me. With his insouciance about money — for he was generous to a fault and always practised the charity he preached — he could just as well have overpaid me by a few hundred pounds. I preferred to enjoy the incident as my private joke and never told him of his error, for I sensed the anguish that still, for him, surrounded the affair.

In his public life he could, unerringly and courageously, ward off the malicious sophistries designed to destroy him; when he was secretary of state for Wales, not all the calumnies of the Welsh nationalists and their media fellow-travellers could subvert his political initiatives and his high reputation. Yet the slightest tremor of scandal, however faintly reverberating into his private domain, reduced him to jelly.

One such occasion was in 1976 when, summoned to his sitting-room in the Speaker’s house, I found him grey-faced and trembling. Investigative journalists, some from the BBC, were pursuing inquiries into the adventures of the then Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe.

They had evidently reached the conclusion that, some 16 years earlier, under a Conservative government, political intervention had saved Thorpe from being prosecuted for a homosexual offence against a minor.

They also believed that, when Thorpe became embroiled in another scandal in 1964, he feared that the records in the Home Office of his earlier misbehaviour would wreck his efforts to free himself of his new dilemma.

The journalists had discovered that Thorpe — using his friend, the fraudulent Liberal MP Peter Bessell, as an intermediary — had turned to George, who was then a parliamentary under-secretary at the Home Office, for help. Yielding to Bessell’s importuning, George had set up a private meeting between Bessell and the home secretary.

The journalists indicated that they wished to have a probing interview with George. When I arrived on the scene he felt trapped. He feared the interpretation that might be placed upon a denial of their request, yet feared to grant it.

He was frightened that his motivation in assisting Bessell was under scrutiny and that the journalists, if denied the interview, would be provoked into becoming more interested in his own sexual proclivities than in Thorpe’s.

It was clear to me that if he submitted to an interrogation by the journalists he was in danger of betraying himself. He could, with unmatched deftness, control the most noisy of Commons debates. But, witnessing his anxiety state, I doubted if, under pressure, he would successfully control the nascent guilt-ridden self-castigations that were just beneath the surface and forever waiting to be released.

I had noted at funerals and marriages his penchant for using texts from the epistle to the Corinthians (as he would again in the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1981). I wanted not the slightest betraying hint of cleansing repentance to emerge in an encounter with his press tormentors.

I told him he must pull rank. He should indicate through his brigadier secretary the impropriety of the Speaker granting a private interview to discuss any matters which might have taken place during his time as a minister.

In a display of mock helpfulness, he should also suggest their best plan would be to get in touch with the department concerned — in this case the Home Office — as it would undoubtedly possess the records of this and other matters of public interest that would be sufficient to satisfy any legitimate inquiries.

I knew well from all my experience in dealing over the years with the Home Office that there is no government department that revels more in bureaucratic negativism. Even the most indefatigable of journalists would be directed on to a fruitless and a frustrating task.

He took my advice, and within a week or two he regained his equanimity and was in splendid form presiding over the Commons.

Thereafter, George presumably exercised more discretion. He never again turned to me for assistance to overcome any misadventures — until I received that poignant early-morning call in 1984, the year after his retirement.

It turned out that morning that he was not at a police station, as I feared, but in a hospital. Puzzled and concerned, I rushed to him.

There was, I knew, a link between his past flights into illness and dangerous threats of exposure. Once, when he was a backbencher, it drove him into hospital with a bout of shingles. Sometimes, when he had been overwhelmed with praise, his guilt at the encomiums being bestowed upon such a "sinner" momentarily crushed him.

(Five years after this incident, he collapsed at a party given for him at Guildhall to celebrate his 80th birthday. That spasm of shame also passed and a few days later he was receiving the Prince and Princess of Wales.)

I wondered, as I approached the hospital that dawn, what ghost had visited the haunted man this time. Before I even reached the hospital, he phoned my wife three times. She kept on reassuring him that I was on my way.

The ward sister was waiting tensely at the reception desk when I arrived. She praised heaven that I had come; she could do nothing with Viscount Tonypandy.

I reached George’s bed and found him convulsively sobbing. He grabbed my hand and said he was ruined. Soon the whole world would know that he was in hospital suffering from . . . venereal disease.

Relieved that this was the extent of the problem, I chastened him to get a grip on himself. He had been extricated from worse scrapes.

"Waterworks" was the answer, I explained. He should allow one of his journalist friends to know he had been rushed to hospital with prostate difficulties after he had found he could not urinate.

That, I knew, would stifle further inquiries. Today prostate troubles are no longer spoken of in whispers; but even 15 years ago the prostate was one of the unmentionables.

I reminded George of a previous Speaker who was temporarily away from the house and how discreetly we were informed that his waterworks were in trouble. Nobody, I assured him, would follow up his condition if he immediately dropped the hint of a prostate problem.

It worked. George entered enthusiastically into the tale I had created for him. He even sent me, from the hospital, a beflowered "thank you" card obviously designed to be shown to my wife.

It read: "Dear Leo, I shall be for ever grateful. Strangely enough there had been no need for me to worry — it was all in my brain! I am due for the prostate gland operation next Wednesday. Love to you all. George."

My wife laughed indulgently at his naivety that she would be deceived; but it helped George to think so and very soon he was out of hospital — taking, I hoped, the precautions that would avoid his ever again being placed in such a predicament.

Am I now, belatedly, betraying my friend in telling of the shadows in which, away from the pomp and glory of the Palace of Westminster, and, indeed, of Buckingham Palace, he was humiliatingly forced to walk? I do not think he would have thought so.

Once, after I had saved him from the consequences of some escapade, he could not contain his anger against the homophobic hostilities which had so dogged him.

Using the only expletives that were part of his vocabulary, with tears in his eyes, he railed: "Bust them, Leo. I do not care a damn what is said after I’m dead but I couldn’t stand them taunting me in my lifetime."

I believe it is proper that George’s homosexuality should be recorded. The gifts he gave to the nation fundamentally arose because of, not despite, his sexual orientation.

Too often it is suggested that the homosexual in politics tends to be singularly destructive — as has been implied with Peter Mandelson. But there are some homosexuals who bring to a legislature a feminine sensibility and empathy which those outlawing such feelings, out of fear that they could undermine their own fragile heterosexuality, conspicuously lack.

These days — fortunately, belatedly — it is possible for cabinet ministers to come out of the closet, to do their work, without forever dissimulating as was George’s lot. The charisma he possessed — which was real, unlike the artificial charisma of Tony Blair — had its source in the extraordinary feminine identification that possessed the man.

That identification was with the one woman in his life — his Mama. The opening words of his autobiography say: "Looking back now I can see how providence has guided my life on a path set by my mother who was the single most important influence in my life."

"Providence" also ordained that he should be cursed in his first five years of life with a violent, alcoholic and bigamist father who, in drunken bouts, regularly smashed the furniture and beat up his wife and children. Every Saturday night after the pubs closed, the father returned to make the home a hell, as mother and the young children vainly tried to contain the violence unleashed against them.

Relief only came when, never to return, the father left to join the army. By that time the mother and her favourite child, bound together in an unshakeable defensive alliance, were as one. And so it remained throughout George’s adult life.

At every meeting, on every platform, at every social gathering, his mother was beside him; she featured in all his election addresses and all his conversations.

His devotion, so publicly and ceaselessly displayed, would doubtless in other cultures have been regarded as cloying and mawkish. But in Wales this redoubtable, bright woman was adopted as a symbol of everyone’s idealised Mam: caring, concerned and forgiving. For the overwhelming majority of the Welsh electorate, George’s very presence brought the recall of a childhood blessed with Mama and Dada.

In vain did Welsh nationalists mock him as "Mother’s Pride"; and it did them little good to scorn his warm relationship with the Queen Mother by dubbing her "Mam with a tiara".

The resonances that George activated, and which brought him so much affection and admiration throughout Wales, arose because his apotheosis of the Mam was — less extravagantly — the emotional mode of so many of his fellow countrymen.

He was adored by so many older voters because he was the good son returning their love. Among his male contemporaries his feminine tenderness evoked indulgence. And many women, with whom he shared so many lineaments, undisturbed by any threatening sexuality, embraced him as a comforter, half older sister, half brother.

Among politicians, a narcissistic breed, many play the part of being their own heroes. With George, it was not role-playing; he was his own hero. In sublimated form, unconsciously, he used the oedipal "rescue" fantasy of saving the mother from the unwanted attention of a tyrant husband; and he acted out the fantasy that yielded the legend of his namesake, Saint George.

Because, in early family life, he had suffered a real and cruel corroboration of this unconscious fantasy of every little boy, the zeal and elan he brought to his political campaigning had a special quality. Rationality was not in his armoury; he relied on his elemental feminine instinct.

He understood the vanities of all of us, including himself. Sometimes he abused his possession of exquisitely sensitive antennae to manipulate or disadvantage his opponents but, far more often, his empathy enabled him to bring balm to the wounded among us.

When George died of throat cancer four years ago, Welsh nationalists and their fellow-travellers danced on his grave even as Britain mourned his passing. The nationalist apologists choked with rage that the obituarists, reflecting public opinion, were recording tributes of so many who felt indebtedness to George.

They lost their usual articulacy and relapsed into gutter abuse. The obituary in the main Anglo-Welsh literary journal declared him to be "swinish", "cynical", a "creep", "possessed of peasant cunning", "glib", "tactless", "pathologically vicious" and "brutal". The thesaurus was dredged to find pejoratives to be heaped upon his tombstone. They mocked too his "overheated relationship with his Mam".

I take pride that I had been able to shield him a little, so that he was unbesmirched when his time came. Led by the Prince of Wales, representing the Queen, Westminster Abbey was packed with 1,400 mourners — not only the great and the good but hundreds of representatives of the charities, chapels and churches to whom he had acted as an inspiration.

Leo Abse 2001
Extracted from Tony Blair, the Man Behind the Smile, by Leo Abse, to be published by Robson Books on March 29 at 9.99. Copies can be ordered for 8.99 from The Sunday Times Books Direct on 0870 165 8585.

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